Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Aevum Obscurum: Das Tausendburgenspiel Review

Aevum Obscurum: Das Tausendburgenspiel, developed and published by Aevum Obscurum Entertainment.
The Good: Intuitive gameplay, lots of nations to play, some interesting tactics, free to join online games, per turn action limitations make controlling a large nation more bearable, creating and downloading maps is very straightforward, organized online tournaments, really cool German subtitle
The Not So Good: Default map is way too large and games last a really long time, outdated graphics and sound
What say you? A more beefy version of Risk that is almost too big for its own good: 6/8

One of the more influential cartoons of my youth was Animaniacs, which spawned Pinky and the Brain. Their “raison d'ĂȘtre” (French for “we surrender!”) was to try to take over the world, an aspiration held by many people, especially computer gamers. Strategy games have given us an outlet in which to funnel these tendencies, and adding to the strategy mix is the Risk-inspired Aevum Obscurum: Das Tausendburgenspiel (German for “another long German word”). Aevum Obscurum takes the basis of Risk and adds some more pieces of flair to it: the ability to construct towers and boats, and setting the action in medieval Europe.

Aevum Obscurum sticks to a frugal presentation, featuring a 2-D map with numbers and background music. This is fine, since the game is basically a ramped-up version of a board game, and the user interface is serviceable enough. Aevum Obscurum isn’t the most exciting game to look at, devoid of pretty much and special effects, but you won’t notice much as you order your troops around the globe. The sound in the game is a lot like the graphics: minimal. There is some overly dramatic background music during the main menu and a thunder strike when you enter the game, but other than that there is hardly any sound in the game. Obviously the focus of Aevum Obscurum is not on production, but as long as the gameplay is solid we’ll be all right.

Aevum Obscurum is a turn-based strategy game where you control a country during the Middle Ages, ordering troops around and invading neutral and enemy lands. You start by choosing a country to control and there are a lot to choose from: anywhere from a four-player tournament setting to fifty-five nations vying for supremacy. The default game mode is “longhaul,” where you try to control approximately 50% of the known world’s provinces. You can also play considerably shorter real-time (instead of play by e-mail through the game’s internal server) “blitz” games, campaigns against the very competent AI, and organized online tournaments. A single game lasts a really long time, as the default map is absolutely huge: winning a game can easily take several months. That alone will probably scare off less enthusiastic players, but for those people who like long, involved matches, Aevum Obscurum certainly offers them. Other than using the default rules, you can automatically team experienced players with novice players, limit alliances to a maximum of three players, and end the game after a fixed number of turns in tournament mode. Aevum Obscurum has a good tutorial that teaches you the basics of the game. If the default map isn’t to your liking, there is a map-editing tool and downloader utility included in the game. Aevum Obscurum is free to play, but registering the game for a small fee allows you to play single players campaigns and the “blitz” games (plus, it supports the developers). A prize for winning an organized tournament is a free membership upgrade, so that’s a cool (and unique) incentive.

Your turn consists of a couple of phases: checking out the results of the previous turn, adjusting the economics, and purchasing and ordering stuff around. The economics of Aevum Obscurum are straightforward: you can adjust the tax rate (which changes income and morale) and the spending level (which will gradually increase the tax income over time). After that, it’s time to do stuff. Aevum Obscurum restricts the number of actions you are allowed to take during each turn (according to the size of your nation). I like this dynamic as it cuts down on micromanagement later in the game. Combat is very straightforward, as whoever has the most troops wins, so most of the time you’ll be recruiting and moving troops. Units can be created by recruiting buying them. Recruited troops appear the following turn, while mercenaries are available immediately, but the number of mercenaries that can be purchased in a single turn is limited. Moving troops is as simple as selecting the province, clicking the destination, and picking how many you want to send. Movement over water automatically uses ships if they are available, so as long as you’ve built enough vessels it’s straightforward. There are two support buildings available: forts for a defensive bonus and watch towers to gain information on surrounding provinces. You can conduct diplomacy with other nations, signing alliances or non-aggression pacts, and even purchase neutral provinces for a sum of money. Victory is attained when you have a pre-set number of victory points or you’ve eliminated all of the opposition. You are eliminated if your king is captured and you own less than three provinces. Aevum Obscurum features some interesting strategic decisions that must be made during the game. How many troops should you leave to defend? Which provinces should be guarded? These are the types of questions that come about in good strategy games. However, the biggest hurdle is the sheer size of the game. Aevum Obscurum becomes quite tedious as your nation grows larger: managing literally hundreds of provinces is a tall task. Because of this, Aevum Obscurum will probably only appeal to hardcore gamers as most of the potential audience will go for shorter and less cumbersome titles.

Aevum Obscurum is a well-designed game that should appeal to veteran strategy gamers. It’s more complicated than Risk but simpler than Europa Universalis III, so there’s a niche to occupy. Joining multiplayer matches is free, so trying out the game only costs the download time. Aevum Obscurum is easy to handle, as the user interface, despite the low quality graphics and sound, makes controlling the action fairly intuitive. There is depth to the gameplay as well, as important decisions regarding troop placement and opposing options must be made. The game does get tiresome near the end, however, since controlling a whole bunch of provinces is frankly a lot of work. Ultimately, Aevum Obscurum will appeal to hardcore strategy gamers with a lot of time on their hands. It’s a good game, but it lacks the quick-fire gameplay required for mass acceptance.